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“Why are we letting the inmates run the asylum?”: a history of mental health care on Kenyon’s campus

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“Why are we letting the inmates run the asylum?”: a history of mental health care on Kenyon’s campus 

It’s October of 2017, my first semester at Kenyon. My friends have just found me in my dorm room, overdosing, and they immediately call Campus Safety on me. They’re with a boy who I do not know very well who also lives in Gund, or maybe he gets there after they call campus safety, I’m still not sure. But as I’m waiting for Campus Safety the world spinning around me, all I can say, over and over again is: “I don’t want him to think I’m crazy.” 

I still feel that way sometimes. In moments of deep distress, when I’m especially vulnerable, I just don’t want people to think I’m crazy. After all, who does?

In April 2021, I wrote an op-ed for The Kenyon Collegian detailing my traumatic first year at Kenyon, specifically in regards to Kenyon’s handling of my suicide attempt during my first semester. In the months following that article’s publication, I began to reflect on how that first year, and my mental illness, shaped my college experience. I also found myself wondering how Kenyon’s mental health services came to exist as they do now. Through that reflection, I recalled  how after my suicide attempt I often thought to myself: How did I get here? 

Now I wonder: how did we get here?

In April 2021, I wrote an op-ed for The Kenyon Collegian detailing my traumatic first year at Kenyon, specifically in regards to Kenyon’s handling of my suicide attempt during my first semester. In the months following that article’s publication, I began to reflect on how that first year, and my mental illness, shaped my college experience. I also found myself wondering how Kenyon’s mental health services came to exist as they do now. Through that reflection, I recalled  how after my suicide attempt I often thought to myself: How did I get here? 

Now I wonder: how did we get here?

Chaplain George Smythe was the first person to introduce counseling to Kenyon. It was described in a Collegian article from September 18, 1975 as “a casual affair with students coming in to talk to a counselor as a friend without too many inhibitions.” Kenyon’s first official counseling center, Smythe House, opened in 1968. Dr. Rowland Shepard, a clinical psychologist, was hired to lead the counseling service specifically in anticipation of women arriving on campus and the increase in the student population that came with it. In 1983, health and counseling services were combined under one roof, acknowledging that physical and mental health are interconnected. 

From its inception, the Counseling Center was poorly funded and understaffed. Kenyon would only offer, at most, a handful of counselors. As more and more students began to seek counseling and the conversations surrounding mental health became more prominent – a 1992 Collegian article mentions that “The 1970s and 1980s brought the words ‘therapy’ and ‘counseling’ into mainstream American vocabulary” – complaints about counselors being overworked increased. In the 1990-91 academic year the percentage of students who sought counseling was 17.3, in the 1992-93 academic year, it was 20.6.  Yet as the demand for counseling increased, the supply of available mental health resources remained the same. Complaints from the student body started  to trickle in. In an October 30, 2003 Collegian article titled, “Student Council talks mental health policy at Kenyon,” one student asked: “If our school can spend millions of dollars on new athletic facilities for physical health, it can certainly spend fifty thousand on a counselor for mental health?” Despite these complaints, nothing about the system changed.

In the 2012-13 school year, Ocean Jurney ’15 pioneered the Peer Counseling Program at Kenyon. This was not the first time a peer-led service played a role in Kenyon’s mental health program. There had previously been First Step, which was founded in 1982,  a service which functioned in a similar way. The Peer Counseling Program came about because it was clear that students who were struggling with their mental health needed more help than what was already available. In an op-ed in the Collegian, Jurney wrote, “Peer Counselors is based on the concept that an enlightened community understands helplessness as a situation in which somebody needs help, as opposed to a sign of weakness or stupidity. Every member of an enlightened community is ready to help themselves and others, and the collective becomes a healthier place.”

Jurney worked alongside the director of counseling services, Patrick Gilligan, to form the PCs. It was initially a small group of friends who wanted to not only support each other, but start a dialogue and support other students as well. ”There was a lot of pushback right from the start from the admin around PCs. I heard that one of the administrators said, ‘Why are we letting the inmates run the asylum?’ That was their perspective on it,” former leading officer for the Peer Counselors Katherine Connolly ’17 said.  

Under the Peer Counselor Program, there were around twenty student counselors, each assigned to a group of first-year students (similar to how Community Advisors operate). The counselors would be in contact with their assigned group throughout the year and would sometimes host events for their students, such as topic-specific support groups covering anxiety, depression, eating disorders and other areas. There was also a 24/7 peer-staffed crisis line each peer counselor would monitor for a few days at a time. 

 “It was just the most life-changing and beautiful part of my Kenyon experience,” said Connolly. “I felt very held and cared for by that whole group and I felt like I could be vulnerable with them and I could go to them for support. It was just this beautiful, miracle place of love and acceptance. “

When I arrived at Kenyon in the fall of 2017, peer counselors were an established, critical part of campus life. Their phone numbers were everywhere and they were a very popular resource. I was unable to set up a weekly appointment at the Counseling Center due to a change in policy that happened in the fall of 2016, a year before I got to Kenyon. The policy made it so that a student would have to schedule their next appointment at the end of their session without any guarantee of  a slot at the same time every week. According to a September 22, 2016 Collegian article, the change was due to a shortage in available appointments, a solution chosen as an alternative to simply hiring more counselors. Transitioning from a structured weekly appointment to inconsistent sessions was extremely difficult for students like me, and what I really needed at that time was stability. Additionally, the counselor I saw did not understand my needs, and the care was insufficient for me personally. This, along with the fact I couldn’t have a stable, consistent recurring appointment, was really challenging. 

The one resource that was truly helpful for me was the peer counselors.  I was suicidal for weeks, maybe even months, in my first year at Kenyon. I had been suicidal before, when I was in high school, and I understood the feeling of not wanting to be here anymore. But this time it was different, even more intense. The loneliness I felt at Kenyon confirmed all of my worst fears about myself: that I would never truly belong anywhere. I felt like a failure. I remember writing a note late in September, and talking to a peer counselor on the phone that day. Our conversation was what convinced me not to hurt myself. The peer counselor I talked to made me feel like maybe Kenyon wasn’t such a lonely place and maybe I could eventually find a place here. He gave me hope. The connection he  provided me with, for even those few hours, meant so much.

Ultimately, peer counseling  still wasn’t enough for me, because what I needed was clinical-level help. In October of my first year I attempted suicide. The way Kenyon handled my situation further traumatized me because the school treated me like a liability instead of a person. I was punished for struggling. Kenyon wanted me to leave after my hospitalization, but I pushed to be able to stay. I knew that leaving Kenyon wasn’t the solution because being at Kenyon wasn’t the problem. I was having trouble adjusting to college and my mental illness made that transition more challenging, but the solution was to learn to adjust, not to remove myself from a community to which I desperately wanted to belong. The doctors I saw in a  psychiatric hospital over my first fall break all agreed that removing me from college would not be helpful. 

Adjusting to Kenyon after that experience was especially challenging. I was navigating a lot of trauma— from everything that had led up to my suicide attempt, but also from my hospitalization itself. I did my best to push through, and was mostly managing just fine in spite of  it all. I was going to therapy three days a week, for a total of 9 hours of group therapy weekly. I was doing as well as I could in my classes with little help from the College. I remember, more than anything, being asked again and again to verify that the doctors had said it would be best for me to be in school, because the administrators at Kenyon didn’t believe that was true. I didn’t have any way of reaching the doctors who saw me, nor did I really want to. Hospitalization was an experience I wanted to move on from. 

Because of everything I was dealing with personally, I was extremely sensitive, and one weekend in late October 2017 I left a party crying. My friends, based off of directions the College gave them after my suicide attempt, called campus safety on me. The next day, a counselor knocked on my door and brought me to the counseling center where my mother and a group of strangers gathered to tell me I needed to leave. They called my presence at Kenyon, due to the fact I was clearly in pain, a “disruption,” to my peers. Sometimes it feels like the administration was waiting for any reason to get me to leave. The moment I showed visible distress, I was punished. Their response to my moment of vulnerability was to, basically, try to kick me out of Kenyon.

What I didn’t know at the time was that something extremely similar happened to another student a year before I arrived on campus. When I spoke to Katherine Connolly, it was painfully moving how much her story resonated with me. Based on what a friend of hers told their counselor at the time, she was almost forced out of Kenyon in the same way I was. One day, after a bad depressive episode, Connolly was asked to come into the counseling center to meet with Lindsey Miller, the counselor in charge of the Peer Counseling program at the time. Connolly assumed it was a logistical meeting, but was blindsided instead. She  found her parents sitting in the room when she arrived. 

“I go to the PC office and my parents are there and they’re sobbing and Lindsey tells me that I’m leaving and I go, what?,” Connolly said. “I was never evaluated directly, this was all hearsay, no one had any interest in talking to me about how I felt.” Connolly was driven back to her home in Philadelphia and taken to the hospital, a decision made without her consent. It was also a decision she never would have made herself, one which took away her agency. “I didn’t want to leave school. I loved school; I was so stressed because I cared about it. So for me a hospital was the totally wrong place and to be home was the totally wrong place.” After actually being evaluated, it was clear Connolly didn’t need to leave Kenyon. “I was seeing all kinds of people and all of those people said to me, ‘Why are you here? You shouldn’t be here,’” she said. The providers Kenyon wanted Katherine to see genuinely didn’t understand why she was living at home instead of going to the school she loved. 

After a week of arguing with the College that she had been cleared to return (by the very doctors Kenyon had told her to see), Connolly finally  came back to Kenyon. But the adjustment was challenging and painful. She no longer felt able to be an active officer for the PCs because the counselor that initiated her withdrawal was their advisor, and so her social life was drastically altered.“I couldn’t talk to my friends the way that I used to, even though I was feeling better with the suicide part and the meds and all that” she said. “Emotionally and socially it was really devastating and it really almost broke my close friendships with my whole friend group. I just couldn’t trust them anymore, so that peer support which was so vital for me was cut off.” I understand deeply this feeling of being wronged by Kenyon that Connolly experienced. Kenyon failed me and it failed her, but it doesn’t have to fail us all. They can do better and I hope they will. 

In the spring of my first year, Kenyon got rid of the peer counselors. This decision hurt me deeply at the time and still angers me today. I absolutely do not think the weight of mental health care should have rested on peer counselors, but if there’s anything I’ve learned from my time at Kenyon, it’s that students always pick up the slack where the institution fails. I also do not understand why the response to this concern that the peer counselors were carrying that burden was just to remove resources instead of replacing them. In his interviews with the Collegian during the removal of peer counselors, Chris Smith, Director of the Cox Health and Counseling Center, expressed concern that PCs were taking on a clinical role. According to a March 2018 Collegian article, “Smith said he values the PCs, but he wants to clarify their role on campus. He said the PCs are supposed to ‘reduce stigma around mental health and connect students to resources’ and he worries their current activities verge beyond these responsibilities and into clinical territory.” Yet instead of providing more resources to replace the peer counselors, the decision was to simply remove the most approachable mental health resource Kenyon had at the time. The loss of the peer counselors was the beginning of things devolving. 

“What I saw when I graduated, and what was so devastating to me, is Kenyon drastically changed the framework for how the campus publicly displayed what they thought about students who have mental health issues,” Connolly said. “The framework changed from being ‘these students need help’ to ‘these students are liabilities for us and if they aren’t well enough to get through college without having support, then they shouldn’t be here and they should leave.’” 

In my four years at Kenyon, there have been a lot of changes in counseling. The staff is almost entirely different from what it was when I arrived, and there is now a mental health task force designed to address concerns students have with the mental health resources on campus. I do have hope that things can and will get better, but I also believe that there are currently far too many flaws in the way the College’s administration views mental illness. The initial reaction to a student struggling should be compassion. A college mandating leave for a student in crisis can further traumatize someone who is already struggling.  Despite any argument about liability the College might make, there is no legal precedent for a bereaved person suing a college or university because a family member died of suicide and the college being found liable for the student’s death. There is no rational or legal reason to not treat people like people when they are suffering.

The way Kenyon treated me during my first semester shaped the entire trajectory of my college experience. In my greatest moment of vulnerability. My fear of being perceived as “crazy” felt validated by a college where I so desperately wanted to belong. I work for Kenyon admissions now, and I’m not lying to potential students when I say that I love Kenyon, and I really am grateful for everything I’ve dealt with here, despite how truly horrible it was at times. For me, it’s never been about a lack of love for this place. I’ve loved Kenyon since I was 15 and it’s been my dream school since I was 17. I still love Kenyon now and I think I always will. For a long time — during my freshman year and after —  I didn’t feel that Kenyon loved me

I’ve finally gotten to a point where I do feel loved here. I’ve felt love from my peers, friends and professors. I’m a senior now, and I feel like Kenyon will miss me when I leave. With proper accommodations, and especially with community support, I’ve been able to thrive at Kenyon. And I feel like I’ve made Kenyon, and will hopefully someday make the world, a better place. But all of that doesn’t change the fact that, plain and simple, I was discriminated against for being mentally ill. I was almost forced out of my community and my education, instead of being properly accommodated, and that is something that shouldn’t happen to anyone. Kenyon will always be a complicated place for me and I’m trying to be okay with that. I just hope in the future it can be less complicated for other people.


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